Surviving COVID-19: Married epidemiologist and nurse share their story

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

“Thank you, Lord, for bringing me here.”

This was Kirk Phillips’ daily prayer after being admitted to the hospital a year ago for a severe COVID-19 infection. “Oddly, it was a prayer of thanks for placing me in the hands of very skilled caretakers, including my wife as a nurse.”

Contributed
COVID-19 survivor Kirk Phillips, equipped with oxygen, gets ready to ride his bike with encouragement from his wife of 25-plus years, Mary Jeanne. Kirk and Mary Jeanne are members of St. Mary Parish in Iowa City.

Phillips, 68, a biomedical informatic and epidemiologist, shared his story of survival during a Faith Journeys presentation at St. Mary Parish in Iowa City last month alongside his wife, Mary Jeanne “MJ” Perino Phillips.

Despite taking extra precautions and working from home, Kirk and MJ, along with MJ’s sister and mother, contracted COVID-19 in the fall of 2020. Contact tracing revealed that MJ’s mother contracted the illness through a caregiver. Among the four family members, Kirk was the only one to have a case requiring hospitalization. This surprised MJ, as Kirk was an avid bicyclist and trumpet player with healthy lungs. In 2019, he participated in the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI).

As Kirk lay on his belly in a hospital bed trying to breathe, he focused on short-term goals: getting through each moment, day by day. “Worrying about longer-term possibilities was self-defeating and caused me to have occasional emotional roller coasters. Healing is a lot of work.”

Meanwhile, MJ found herself in an unfamiliar position. As a nurse for more than 40 years, “I was used to being on one side of the bed, one side of the phone calls, talking with patients and families. Being on the other side was totally different. Helpless is the best way I can describe it; It was very hard.” Prayer was a constant source of comfort for MJ. “I can’t imagine how empty or distressing the hours would have been without that faith,” she said.

The Phillips’ neighbors and parish community at St. Mary were godsends, providing support that made MJ feel like Mary Bailey in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” People from all over the world prayed for Kirk. The Hawkeye Marching Band at the University of Iowa, for whom Kirk developed COVID-19 protocols, signed a drumhead and recorded a song as get-well-soon gifts. MJ delivered countless cards to Kirk during her limited visiting hours. Kirk recalled, “I was moved to tears when I heard about how many people were praying for me.”

After a month in the hospital, Kirk returned home. Community members continued to bless the Phillips family by shoveling snow and providing nutritious meals. MJ was grateful that her fellow nurses covered her shifts so she could take time off to care for her husband.

Upon returning home, Kirk relied heavily on oxygen. He worried that he might not be able to play trumpet again. However, one day MJ found her husband playing “the most beautiful” Ave Maria. “I knew then that we had turned the corner and were going to make it,” she said.

At present, Kirk’s feet and a few fingers are numb because of his battle with COVID-19. While he can function almost normally with daily activities, he said he needs extra oxygen when exerting himself, including riding his bike. He will receive pulmonary therapy for the foreseeable  future.

He is grateful for the skilled staff, prayers and acts of kindness he received during the worst of his health crisis. Kirk is especially thankful for the support of his wife, who held his hand during the most emotional aspects of his testimony. “She remains to be the center of my being on earth with her soothing presence, patience and love.”

Kirk said he does not feel extraordinary for having survived a severe case of COVID-19. “Many of us experience illness daily, asking for prayers from our community. Many of you have experienced cancer, crashes and various illnesses. I hope we continue to engage in prayer together.”

MJ concluded the presentation by thanking God for the blessings that have occurred during Kirk’s recovery. “The Lord has done great things for us, and Kirk and I are filled with joy and gratitude.”


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